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Chirac Vows Changes in French Health Care System - 2003-08-21

The death toll from a heat wave that has swept Europe has claimed lives estimated in the thousands. French President Jacques Chirac has acknowledged shortcomings in his own country's health system during the crisis and pledged to make improvements. While temperatures have cooled, Europe is still feeling the after-effects of the devastating heat spell.

One government estimate places the number of heat-related deaths at up to 10,000 in France alone. That prompted President Chirac, in his first comments on the crisis, to promise that everything will be done to correct the inadequacies in France's health system.

In a nationally televised address on Thursday, Mr. Chirac promised the emergency services would be given the means to better deal with such catastrophes - and he expressed compassion for the victims' families.

It was France's secretary of state for the elderly, Hubert Falco, who announced to reporters that it was likely that up to 10,000 people in France had died from the heat.

This is twice the previous government estimate. Earlier this week Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei said up to 5,000 people may have died. Temperatures in parts of France hit 40 degrees Celsius every day for almost two weeks earlier this month.

Elsewhere in Europe, Portuguese media say more than 1,300 people had died in the heat wave that gripped that nation, sparking its worst forest fires in more than 20 years.

Portugal's Lusa news agency quoted figures from a preliminary health ministry report for the period between late July and August 12.

In neighboring Spain the political opposition has criticized the government for what it says was an inadequate response to the heat wave. A Socialist party official told the El Pais daily newspaper that the Health Ministry failed to take needed precautions.

In addition, an official of the United Left grouping said the government also did not coordinate policy among Spain's many autonomous regions.

The official death toll in Spain has been put at 46, but the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia says several hundred deaths may be linked to the heat. The Spanish government has defended its handling of the crisis.